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NCSA Awards Scholarship to Winner of Social Hack 2021 Essay Contest

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The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign awarded a Fiddler Innovation Fellowship to UIUC freshman Ella Dennis, winner of the Social Hack Essay Contest. This $500 scholarship is part of an endowment from Jerry Fiddler and Melissa Alden to support the eDream Institute based at NCSA. It aims to help and recognize students dedicated to affecting impactful change after attending Social Hack 2021.

Hosted by Design for America, a student-led non-profit organization at UIUC, the virtual mini conference’s theme was Rethinking Essential Work Post Pandemic. It sought to explore social systems design and its disproportionate impact on under-invested and exploited populations as beneficiaries and employees of essential work. Participants were encouraged to discuss human-centered design thinking and ways to use it for “social good” when rebuilding a new normal post-COVID-19.

As a takeaway, I want people to realize that the barrier to entry for design and design thinking is really just a mindset shift in how we listen to people rather than a set of tools with a set goal at the end. That being said, shifting how we teach human-centered design within DFA has been a journey in itself, with many members who are thrown into projects still being very confused about what design is by the end of it. I saw many lightbulbs go off and ‘aha’ moments from several DFA members attending the event, which made it all worth it.

Angela Chan, Social Hack Director, UIUC Senior

Students who attended were encouraged to submit a long or short essay on applying these design approaches to their community, develop potential steps of action and understand the interdisciplinary nature of this work. The essay contest featured four different writing prompts reflecting on topics discussed during conference workshops involving the effects of design and how we can use it to improve our communities and lives.

A panel consisting of representatives from DFA, Gies College of Business, College of Fine & Applied Arts, and the Fiddler Endowment selected a winner after a selection process. NCSA’s professor Donna J. Cox, director of the eDream Institute, and Olena Kindratenko, senior education and outreach coordinator who oversees the partnership between NCSA and DFA are involved in this process.

“The DFA student leaders have consistently innovated through events that focus design on societal impact and that generate thought-provoking ideas. We are pleased to help support these efforts through Fiddler Student Fellowships,” says Cox, who is also NCSA’s chief scholar and Advanced Visualization Lab director.

“NCSA is excited to support students in making change by recognizing them with the Fiddler Innovation undergraduate awards. This year, the Fiddler Innovation Undergraduate essays prompted students to share their passion and vision of change addressing society’s most pressing issues,” says Kindratenko. “I enjoy being an integral part of managing the relationship between the center and DFA. This role allows me to help DFA achieve and further its mission of improving the world around us.”

Dennis, an Illinois undergrad pursuing a degree in Psychology and Global Studies, wrote a captivating essay for the Designing Your Passion category. This prompt encouraged writers to consider their passion area, identify challenges, analyze current problem-solving methods, and reflect on how design can improve outcomes in this area. Dennis’ essay focuses on using human-centered design thinking to support sexual and relationship violence prevention with consideration for specific impacted communities. She proposes replacing current campaign approaches—which focus on white, heterosexual, cis-gendered couples—with a framework that allows community members of target audiences to be a part of the design process from the beginning.

Read Ella Dennis’ winning essay below.


It is no secret that gender-based violence remains a pervasive issue. From misogynistic school dress codes to my speech coach’s comment that my friend should keep her blouse unbuttoned because “sex sells,” I—like all feminine-presenting folks—have been well-acquainted with the sexualization of female-presenting bodies for years. And coming to a college campus notorious for rape culture, it is difficult not to feel a little internal rage when I know that every feminine person on this campus is sure to carry pepper spray in preparation for a crime for which they would likely be somehow put at fault. Of course, this is not to say that men are not also victims of sexual violence—this issue impacts people of all identities. My passion centers around preventing sexual and relationship violence, and I want to use the design process to improve common approaches to prevention.

While many resources are allocated towards necessary post-violence supports, I am especially interested in changing common methodologies of preventing violence before it occurs. I currently do research in an action-oriented lab that studies the efficacy of mass messaging campaigns in preventing sexual and relationship violence. One framework that we use to contextualize campaigns is the Social Ecological Model, which stresses an interrelation amongst prevention efforts at all levels of society with emphasis on changing social norms. Recently, I have noticed that some campaigns that aim to change social norms lack specificity to the communities they want to change; many campaigns only feature pictures of cisgender, heterosexual, white couples. And instead of engaging in an emancipatory research process as outlined by Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, many campaign evaluators test the efficacy of white-centric campaigns in BIPOC communities without first establishing genuine connections with community members nor intending to create a new campaign based on their feedback. In my mind, this process invites the same critiques as the “empathize” phase of the design process in that it deifies campaign researchers and risks allowing community feedback to be filtered through their privileged perspectives as they decide whether to incorporate the feedback in a new campaign design.

Moving forward, my goal is to tackle this distant, evaluative process and replace it with a framework for community-participatory creation. Instead of giving opinions on pre-existing prevention campaigns, community members should be involved at every step of the design process. This will be challenging because it shifts power balances, somewhat reducing the agency of “professionals” in the campaign creation process. However, I think this shift is overdue and could be piloted with young researchers and designers who are more interested in building genuine connections with the Champaign-Urbana community and less preoccupied with gatekeeping the campaign design processes. Since research shows that prevention campaigns are far more effective when they represent their target audience, building a more participatory campaign design process is not only a matter of equity; it ultimately is a matter of violence prevention. In the future, I hope that I can change existing processes to better serve this goal.


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use these resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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